The 727 that Vanished
It shouldn’t be so easy to lose an aircraft.
Especially a big old airliner. It was 47 metres (153 feet) long and 10 metres (34 feet) high, with a wingspan of 33 metres (108 feet). Twice the height of a giraffe and four times the length of a London bus.
The aircraft was a Boeing 727, registration N844AA, and it has not been seen in 13 years, despite a worldwide search by US security forces.
The old Boeing had done its duty well. It had served 26 loyal years in the colours of American Airlines, but its best days were long gone, and as the sun rose over West Africa it sat forlornly on the greasy concrete apron of Luanda International Airport in Angola, apparently leased to Air Angola.
It hadn’t flown for 14 months, and its sorry state seemed to tell a familiar story about African airports – unpaid bills, dodgy paperwork, token maintenance. Nevertheless, no one paid it much attention. But the 727 was about to become the centerpiece of one of the strangest mysteries in aviation history, one that would alarm Western governments and baffle investigators around the world.
There are only a few places where a 46.5 metre-long, 90,718 kilogram commercial airliner can take off without warning and simply disappear. Africa is one of them, and whoever was at the controls of the Boeing 727 – on that afternoon must have known the possibilities of what pilots call the “gauntlet” – the vast, virtually uncontrolled airspace south of the Sahara Desert and north of the Limpopo River. For, at around teatime, the plane suddenly fired up its engines, rumbled down the runway, soared into the velvety dusk and vanished.
On 25 May 2003, a Boeing 727-223 aircraft, registered N844AA, took off from Quatro de Fevereiro Airport in Luanda, Angola. Not such an unusual action, except that nobody knew for certain who was at the controls. Clearance for take off was not requested or given. In effect, the Boeing had been stolen from under the noses of Air Traffic Control.
This airliner was built around 1975. It began its service life with American Airlines before being sold on to Miami based company called Aerospace Sales and Leasing. The aircraft was leased by TAAG Angola Airlines but was not used in over a year. During this time TAAG ended up owing a tidy sum of $4m in airport fees. Along with another aircraft at the same airport, it was being converted for use by another airline, IRS Airlines. At the time it took off, the plane was described as an unpainted silver colour with strips of blue, white, and red. All of the passenger seats had been removed from the interior and was also outfitted to carry diesel fuel.
Prior to the take-off, a man was seen entering the plane. This man was Benjamin Charles Padilla and he was contracted by the airline to do some work to the jet. The maintenance that he was hired for was apparently not a one man job as Padilla’s assistant, John Mikel Matantu, was also said to have boarded the plane while it sat on the tarmac. Both engineers were supposed to work on bringing the aircraft back up to operational standard in readiness for the upcoming handover. Neither of the pair could handle a plane of this scope. Matantu was simply not a pilot and Padilla was only licensed to fly light aircraft.
“In 22 years in this business, I’ve never come across anything like this,” says Chris Yates, a security analyst for Jane’s Aviation Service. “Even for Africa it’s astounding.” But who took the 727? Terrorists? Criminals? Joyriders?
From the moment the plane’s disappearance was disclosed, the CIA and the secretive National Security Agency in the United States have been urgently trying to find out. British, French and Russian intelligence services have been co-opted into the search. Spy satellites have swept all potential landing places within the plane’s range. Western diplomats throughout Africa have been ordered to keep their ears to the ground, and thousands of hours of air-traffic communications have been analysed in the search for clues.
Unconfirmed reports have come in of the plane making a clandestine landing in Nigeria, crashing off the Seychelles, and being seen, with a hasty new paint job, flying between Guinea and the Lebanon.
“Basically,” says Phil Reeker, a spokesman for the US State Department, “we don’t know where it is. But we really need to find out. This is a serious matter.”
Underlining these fears was an updated advisory notice, issued by the US Homeland Security Department the month the plane went missing, saying that the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation had a “continuing fixation” with using large commercial aircraft for attacks. And that following the plane’s purchase from American Airlines in late 2001, it was converted into a flying fuel-tanker. “It doesn’t take a genius,” says Yates, “to figure out that if you filled it up and stuck a couple of suicide pilots on board, you’d have a huge bomb.”
Ben Charles Padilla, a certified flight engineer, aircraft mechanic, and private pilot, disappeared while working in the Angolan capital, Luanda, for Florida-based Aerospace Sales and Leasing.
Shortly before sunset, Padilla boarded the company’s Boeing 727-223, tail number N844AA. With him was a helper he had recently hired, John Mikel Mutantu, from the Republic of the Congo. The two had been working with Angolan mechanics to return the 727 to flight-ready status so they could reclaim it from a business deal gone bad, but neither could fly it. Mutantu was not a pilot, and Padilla had only a private pilot’s license. A 727 ordinarily requires three trained aircrew.
According to press reports, the aircraft began taxiing with no communication between the crew and the tower; maneuvering erratically, it entered a runway without clearance. With its lights off and its transponder not transmitting, 844AA took off to the southwest, and headed out over the Atlantic Ocean. The 727 and the two men have not been seen since.
Who was flying 844AA? Had something happened to make Padilla take that desperate chance? Or was someone waiting inside the airplane? Leased to deliver diesel fuel to diamond mines, the 727 carried 10 500-gallon fuel tanks and a few passenger seats in its cabin. Less than two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 727’s freakish departure triggered a frantic search by U.S. security organizations for what intelligence sources said could have been a flying bomb.
It wasn’t a particularly exciting aircraft, in fact it was barely airworthy. Maury Joseph, the president of Aerospace Sales and Leasing, Inc, was the effective owner. In 2001, he owned three 727s which had been retired by American Airlines, all three in almost mint condition.
Maury Joseph sold N844AA to a South African entrepreneur, Irwin, for a million US dollars, who wanted it, and a crew, to fulfill a contract to supply fuel to diamond mines in Angola.
Joseph says he was paid $125,000 as a down payment. He removed the passenger seats from the cabin so that it could be installed with ten large fuel tanks. He agreed the aircraft could be taken to Angola but insisted that one of his employees travel with it, so that he could make sure the money came through. On the 28th of February in 2002, still carrying the American Airlines livery, the aircraft departed Miami for Luanda.
It’s unclear what the details of the deal were but certainly, only two payments were ever made. Maury Joseph never got his money.
One of the original crew posted on the Professional Pilot’s Rumour Network (PPRuNe) about their arrival:
When 844AA first arrived in Luanda from the USA it was grounded by the local Fed’s because it didn’t have an HF radio. An HF radio taken from a Cessna 206 (or close to it) including the long coaxial antenna was installed on 844AA.
It may be possible to identify the aircraft by inspecting the belly and identifying the holes drilled aft of the EEC door along the center line of the belly where the antenna from the 206 was installed. The first hole would be roughly 3/8 diameter directly aft and close to the EEC access door and then approximately 8 more 1/8″ holes drilled approx. 4′ apart running aft along the belly. Attached to these holes were brackets that the antenna was attached to. So it is possible that on inspection from an experienced 727 mechanic or flight crew member and if these holes were not filled in,they may be able to identify these non conforming holes in the belly thus confirming that the aircraft is 844AA. By the way, after this bizarre installation of the HF antenna designed for a Cessna was installed on 844AA, the local Fed’s signed it off.
After it was approved by the authorities in Luanda, it was removed because we were well aware of the fact it was non-conforming, illegal and so on. It was the biggest laugh we had the whole time we were there. We had another option and that was to install an HF that was purchased by Mr Irwin and we found out after the fact that it was from a Angolan military aircraft. It was quickly returned as far as I know.
The director of Angola’s civil aviation authority said that the aircraft had been grounded for about a year because it lacked the proper documentation verifying its legal conversion to a tanker. He also said in a radio interview that the aircraft was banned from overflying Angolan territory on account of a series of irregularities.
Certainly, the deal flying the fuel for the diamond mine didn’t work out and another cargo deal seemed to only consist of 17 flights before the crew left. Soon, Maury Joseph’s employee (who was meant to ensure Aerospace Sales and Leasing, Inc got their money) was the only one of the original crew left. Joseph fired him in the spring 2002, as the money was never forthcoming and the employee kept making excuses not to bring the aircraft back.
The aircraft stayed at Luanda, effectively abandoned.
Joseph eventually found a buyer for the engines, which had only had around a thousand cycles and were now the only part of the aircraft with value.
Ben Charles Padilla Jr. was always mechanically gifted, says sister Benita Padilla-Kirkland, and from the time he was a boy, he loved airplanes. In his mid-20s he learned to fly and became certified as an airframe-and-power plant mechanic. He lived in south Florida with two children, one his own, and a fiancée of 15 years. Though the two weren’t married, Padilla gave her power of attorney in his absence and made her the executor of his estate, according to Padilla-Kirkland, and left her almost everything in his will.
“He certainly knew the airplane,” says Maury Joseph. Padilla was a freelancer, who had worked for Joseph on two jobs before traveling to Angola to repossess 844AA. Padilla had worked extensively in Africa. He helped Joseph ferry a 727 to Nigeria for a sale and during the negotiations stayed to explain the aircraft systems. “If you said, ‘Go to Cambodia and do this’ or ‘Go to Indonesia and do this’ or ‘Go to South America and do this’ he would do it. [When in Nigeria] I was with Ben daily for a month or more,” says Joseph. “You become fairly close to somebody when you’re with them day and night.” Joseph trusted him.
But another employer formed a different opinion. Jeff Swain, who works near Miami in international aircraft sales and leasing, had hired Padilla in the late 1990s for an airline he was operating in Indonesia—and fired him. “We had certain standards of conduct we expected from flight engineers,” Swain says, adding, when pressed, “He was too involved in chasing the local girls. It was an unstructured environment, and he just went bad.” Swain says that after Padilla was fired, he stayed on in Indonesia for two months and racked up a $10,000 bill that he told the hotel the airline would pay. “We finally had him deported,” says Swain.
Padilla once showed Swain a photograph of a woman with small children and told him it was his wife in Mozambique, but Swain says, “I never believed it was real. Ben was always marveling everyone with his bull—- stories.” One of Padilla’s friends also saw a photograph of a wife, but insisted that she lived in Tanzania. Another acquaintance was told that Padilla had a wife in Indonesia.
Benita Padilla-Kirkland says she’s heard the stories, but believes her brother would have told her if he’d had another family. She doesn’t doubt the relationships, but is convinced that Padilla was helping to support people he’d befriended. “There might have been more than one of those situations,” she says.
What in February 2002 had been a retired airliner in excellent condition had by fall become a junker worth only the price of its engines. And Maury Joseph found a buyer for them: Jeff Swain. Swain says that Irwin and the crews had ruined the airplane. “It would never be of any value again,” he says. “You can’t put water tanks full of fuel in an airplane and expect it to be good. Totally stupid. But it had really good engines on it—maybe 1,000 cycles since new.”
In November 2002, Joseph and Ben Padilla flew to Nigeria to deliver a 727, and Joseph hired Padilla to fly to Angola the following April to pay the outstanding fines and hire mechanics to return the 727 to service. “If [the company that contracted for fuel deliveries] wasn’t paying Mr. Irwin, you can assume he wasn’t paying anybody,” says Joseph. “He probably hadn’t paid the fuel bill. He didn’t pay the navigation fees, the landing fees, and certainly wasn’t paying the parking fees at the airport. So all of those became things that we had to resolve and I had to pay all those.”
Padilla worked with Air Gemini, a Luanda-based airline that operated a repair station. The return-to-service process was progressing steadily, according to Joseph, and in May 2003, acting as Joseph’s agent, Padilla hired a pilot and copilot from Air Gemini to help him deliver the aircraft to Johannesburg, South Africa, where Joseph was waiting with his new customer.
A day or two before the aircraft was to leave Luanda, Padilla made plans with Air Gemini to take the aircraft from the company hangar out to the main runway, where he intended to run the three engines up to full power for a systems check.
Late in the morning on May 26, when Joseph and Swain were expecting 844AA to land, Joseph took a call from an Air Gemini employee, who demanded to know why another crew had flown the airplane out of Luanda. “He was kind of hard on me,” Joseph says. After the shock wore off, he telephoned the U.S. Embassy in South Africa to report the disappearance, then called his wife back in Florida to tell her to call the FBI. From Washington, D.C., the Department of State, notified by the U.S. Embassy in Angola, sent a message to every American embassy in Africa: Alert aviation officials that an airliner has been stolen, and call every airport with a runway long enough to handle a 727.
For the U.S. government, fraud was one theory that could explain the aircraft’s disappearance. “Part of the intelligence was that the airplane was in a bad state of repair,” says General Robeson. “That was one of the speculations, that it was an insurance fraud situation. You know, ‘Oops, my plane was hijacked/stolen by terrorists and now I can do an insurance claim on it.’ So, that was probably as valid of an explanation when all was said and done as anything. But we just left it as an unknown.”
Among intelligence officials, the suspicions of fraud may have been aroused by knowledge of an incident in Maury Joseph’s past. During the 1990s, Joseph was CEO of a cargo airline named Florida West (which later went bankrupt). The Securities and Exchange Commission charged him in a civil case with falsifying financial statements and defrauding investors. The court imposed a fine and barred Joseph from acting as an officer in a publicly held company.
But Joseph, when contacted by the FBI, volunteered to take a lie-detector test, and Swain, who was there when Joseph took the call from Air Gemini, is certain that Joseph had nothing to do with the airplane’s disappearance. “Look, nobody was more amazed by this situation than Maury,” Swain says. He describes Joseph as utterly confused by the information that the airplane was gone.
The suspicion that Ben Padilla could have played any part in an insurance fraud angers his younger brother. “If anybody would say to me that my brother was involved with this,” says Joe Padilla, his voice tightening, “they’re full of it. ’Cuz I know my brother. He’s not gonna do nothing crooked. I know that for a fact.” He is convinced that more than one person was already on board, waiting, and that they forcibly took the aircraft, and killed Ben and John Mutantu.
On January 6, 2004, Padilla’s siblings declared on television that they have received several calls from around the world offering tips as to the whereabouts of the jet-liner, one of them placing it in Lebanon. However, none of the calls have disclosed sightings of Padilla himself.
A number of theories and possible explanations for the mystery have been reported since it disappeared – these include sightings
In July 2003 a possible sighting of the missing plane was reported in Conakry, Guinea.
In August 2003 a reported sighting of the plane on an airfield at Kankan Airport, Guinea.
Another theory is that the 727’s owners decided to make the aircraft disappear to collect the insurance money. It has been documented that the plane was in a terrible state, and the insurance overvalued the plane.
The missing pilot’s brother Joe, fears the worst. “The family has heard nothing about him,” says Joe Padilla.
“Not since before he went to Angola. My understanding is that it was a legitimate mission. His job was to repossess the plane, make it airworthy and bring it out of there. My feeling is something bad happened while he was getting ready to leave. Someone forced him to do something against his will.
“Ben’s an adventurer, and a great airman. He’s worked in all the crazy places – Paraguay, Mozambique, the Philippines; the places other guys don’t want to work. But he’s not a criminal and he’s certainly not a terrorist.
“The fact he hasn’t been in touch tells me he is probably dead. I don’t know how. Maybe the people who forced him to take off killed him later. Maybe if the plane wasn’t fully ready to fly, it crashed somewhere. It’s all a big mystery.”
And so it may remain. The State Department says there is “no reason” to believe the Boeing has been taken by terrorists. But the apparent ease with which a purpose-built flying bomb can vanish is a sobering reminder of the kind of opportunity available to an outfit like al-Qaeda.
African aviation is another world, Anything can happen there.